WASHINGTON - Slavery exists in the tomato fields of Florida, a U.S. Senate committee was told Tuesday.
"Today's form of slavery does not bear the overt nature of pre-Civil War society, but it is nonetheless heinous and reprehensible," Collier County Sheriff's Detective Charlie Frost told Democratic members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. No Republicans attended the hearing.
Workers are held in "involuntary servitude" through threats and actual violence against them and their families - often in Latin America - and in a system of "perpetually accruing debt," in which they are overcharged for housing, food, water and transportation, he said.
"Almost certainly, it's going on right now," Frost said.
But Reginald Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, disputed the characterization as slavery in the commercial tomato industry. Isolated cases have occurred among private growers, he said.
"Florida's tomato growers abhor and condemn slavery," Brown said. "We are on the same side on this issue."
The Senate hearing focused on the living and working conditions facing thousands of migrant tomato pickers, their rate of pay and the industry's refusal to implement agreements by major restaurant chains to pay workers an additional penny a pound for harvested tomatoes.
Committee members expressed skepticism about the growers' willingness to police their members and said the industry appears to foster low wages and the exploitation of migrant workers.
At the conclusion of the two-hour hearing, Brown reluctantly agreed the exchange would cooperate if the committee requested a Government Accountability Office study of conditions among tomato workers. But Brown said he could not guarantee that the individual companies in the exchange would cooperate.
Lucas Benitez, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, told the panel that tomato pickers regularly are abused, harassed, intimidated and kept so deeply in debt that they are virtually in bondage. Benitez said female pickers additionally are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse.
"The seven cases of modern slavery that have been uncovered in the fields of Florida are just the tip of the iceberg," Benitez said, referring to federal cases in the past decade.
Frost, the Collier County detective, said slavery was the same as human trafficking, but that loopholes in state and federal law make it difficult to bring cases against those who benefit from the system.
Brown rejected the claim.
"We are paying fair wages and we're paying our workers fairly," Brown said.
Roy Reyna, a former farmworker who now is the farm manager for Grainger Farms in Immokalee, said he has not witnessed any cases of slavery or forced work during his 25 years in the fields. Reyna said the roughly 100 workers on his farm "choose to work with our company - because we pay them a fair wage, offer very inexpensive housing and treat them with dignity and respect."
Eric Schlosser, an investigative reporter and author of Fast Food Nation, testified he found it "incredible" that slavery exists in 2008.
Schlosser said he believes "there are farmers that are honest and decent, but it's unfair to them to compete with those who are imposing slavery."
© 2008 The Palm Beach Post